Diversity in Leadership: 5 Data-Backed Steps for Measurable Change

Published by:
Joe Caccavale
September 28, 2021
min read

Debiased Hiring Bundle

FACT: The higher up the ladder you go, the less diversity you tend to see.

According to a 2020 Mercer survey, in the U.S, people from ethnic minority backgrounds are underrepresented at every career level above the support staff level.

And this representation decreases incrementally as career levels rise.

When we look at gender diversity, the research is also disheartening: projections indicate it will take 10 years to increase female representation by just 3%.

Distribution of white employees by career level

At the very top of the hierarchy, we can see that the executive level tends to be dominated by a white male demographic.

Demographics of U.S. executives

Whilst we should be working towards more equal organizations simply because it’s the right thing to do...

All of the research on diversity in the workplace points to the reality that has a direct impact on the bottom line.

Effect of diversity on innovation revenue

Progress is slow because these diversity gaps aren’t something that can be solved by throwing money at diversity initiatives or expensive training programs - especially when it comes to diversity in leadership.

To make tangible improvements that can be measured and reported on, we have to change hiring practices themselves.

You don’t have to spend big and overhaul your entire process to start making progress…

Here are a few cost-efficient changes you can make that have been proven to improve diversity in leadership.

1. Don’t rely on referrals 

The biggest and most obvious misstep hirers make at the sourcing stage is only advertising leadership positions internally.

If you want to bring in demographics that aren’t already in your organization you have to get your job ads out there.

Since hiring for senior roles is generally seen as more high-stakes, there’s also a tendency to heavily rely on employee referrals.

Whilst referred candidates may seem like safer bets and are often cheaper to source, they’ve also been shown to reflect the demographic of those who refer them.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use referrals at all but you should make sure that those who you’ve asked to refer people from their networks are a diverse group themselves.

2. Remove gender-coding from your job ads

The words and phrases you use in your job descriptions can carry subconscious meaning which can signal that a certain type of person would be a better fit for the job.

If you use excessive masculine-coded terms, this is likely to decrease the number of women who apply.

Gender coding effect on diversity of applicants

Openreach's research found that women were 50% less likely to consider roles that have a coded gender bias

When presented with a feminine-coded job description, interest in the role increased by more than 200%...

With 60% stating this was because of the way it was written.

Here are a few of the most common masculine-coded terms to avoid:

  1. Lead
  2. Analyse
  3. Competitive
  4. Active
  5. Confident

We also built a gender decoder especially for job ads and descriptions that you can try for free.

3. Anonymize the screening stage 

You can put all of your energy into diversifying your talent pool, but if your process is prone to unconscious bias (and chances are it is), then all of this will have been in vain.

We’re all biased - it comes with being human.

However, if we don’t take steps to remove this bias, it leads to minority background candidates being disproportionately disadvantaged.

CVs needed to receive 1 callback (by ethnicity)

Unfortunately, there aren’t a few explicitly biased ‘bad apples’ we can weed out to improve these outcomes.

Our natural, unconscious tendency to warm to those like ourselves and make rapid-fire mental shortcuts means that no amount of training or goodwill is going to change diversity in leadership or entry-level.

Instead, what has been proven to work when it comes to hiring for diversity is simply removing the information that triggers bias likes names, addresses and dates of birth - anything that reveals something about a candidate’s identity.

4. Take the emphasis away from credentials - test skills instead

Even once you’ve removed somebody’s identifying information from an application, their education and work experience can still be grounds for bias and can signal someone’s socio-economic background.

Believe it or not, the research shows that education and years of experience are both weak indicators of future performance.

So what should you do instead? 

Well, the most predictive form of assessment you can use is called a ‘work sample’.

Work samples are created by identifying which skills (ideally 6-8) are needed for the job and then building questions that will test these skills.

Example of work sample question

Work samples should then be scores against a basic rubric like the one below.

Example review guide

Since leadership-level hiring is often more informal and network-based, hirers assume that more senior candidates will be dissuaded from applying if the process entails more work upfront.

However, here at Applied, we’ve used this process at all levels of our company (as have our customers) with an average 9/10 candidate feedback rating, including those who were unsuccessful.

Whilst the candidate pool may be marginally smaller than with a CV process, you’ll have a more diverse, pre-qualified and genuinely passionate group of candidates to choose from.

At Applied, candidates submit 3-5 of these work samples anonymously instead of a CV.

5. Replace culture fit with mission and values alignment 

Company culture is very much subjective, and when framed as something that must be ‘fit into’ this often leads to unfair outcomes as a result of unconscious bias.

If your culture is built around the existing demographics in your organization, those from minority backgrounds are likely to be penalized for not fitting into this.

And if we look at the study below, we can see culture fit doesn’t actually help identify the best people for the job anyway.

Culture ft ivs job performance chart

By looking for mission and value-alignment instead of culture fit, you’re able to find people who care about how your team works and the mission they’re working towards, without things like hobbies or drinking preferences playing a part.

  • Mission: Is this person bought into the purpose of our organization?
  • Values: Does this person share the beliefs that guide our decision making?

To test for these in the assessment process, you can simply add them to the list of skills you’re looking for.

Candidates work sample answers can then be scored against how well they embody your values, as well as the particular skill(s) required for the task.

Applied is the essential platform for debiased hiring. Purpose-built to make hiring empirical and ethical, our platform uses anonymized applications and skill-based assessments to identify talent that would otherwise have been overlooked.

Push back against conventional hiring wisdom with a smarter solution: book in a demo